© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Although it has been about ten years since I have seen it, just thinking about a video we used to show at Cursillo weekends still has the power to awaken within me the range of powerful emotions that accompany a story of brokenness and reconciliation. Cursillo is a movement in the Episcopal Church that focuses on spiritual renewal and congregational leadership. It exists throughout the church but seems to have gone dormant in this diocese.
Anyway, the video I have in mind is one that portrays a terrible argument between a son and his parents—one so severe that the relationship between them disintegrates as the son leaves, promising never to come back. It has been so long since I have seen the video that I don’t remember the whole story, but I do remember that somehow years later word got from the son to his parents that, if he was still welcome in their home, if they were willing to accept him back, they should keep a lamp on in his bedroom window in case he came by and found the courage to knock on the door. I cannot recall exactly how things worked out, but I can remember tears streaming down my face as I watched two parents wrap their arms around their desperate son in moment of tender reunion.
Stories like that always make me cry. There’s something about the idea of being cut off from my family and then being welcomed back home or losing touch with a child and finally seeing them come back that tugs at tenderest part of my heart. But what if leaving a light on isn’t good enough? What if the brokenness is so deep that the one who is estranged never bothers to come back? What if the idea of returning home or welcoming someone back is so painful that we simply cannot do it no matter how much we love someone? We need a story that presents reconciliation not as something that is waiting for us if we find can ever the strength to turn around and come back. We need a savior who comes out and finds us where we are.
In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, which is about 29 AD, the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke provides the backstory to John the Baptizer and how he made his way out into the wilderness in the first place. The son of a priest, John’s birth had been announced by the angel Gabriel, who explained that this child would grow up to become a mighty prophet and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. Luke doesn’t tell us about camelhair and leather belts or locusts and wild honey, but he doesn’t have to because everyone knows that a Spirit-filled prophet will have a hard time finding a home amidst city-folk. From the time he was an adult, Luke tells us, John made his home in the wilderness, on the edge of civilization, where he waited for God’s call.
John the Baptizer wasn’t the only religious figure of his day to dwell out beyond the reaches of society. The Essenes were an ascetic religious group who gave up on the Jerusalem temple as a spiritually corrupt institution and established their own Jewish community amidst the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were eventually found. Before his prophetic call, it seems likely that John made his home among them. In his work Antiquities of the Jews, first-century historian Josephus gives an extracanonical account of John the Baptist, describing him as one who emphasized personal righteousness and piety and who taught that ritual washing was necessary for physical purity before God.  Josephus’ description of John sounds a lot like something the Essenes would have taught, but, when God’s long-expected word came to the Baptizer, he broke away from that community in order to proclaim a different teaching.
Having received God’s call, John the Baptist went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He didn’t go out and invite people to come back to the temple. He didn’t encourage folks to leave their homes and lives and devote themselves to the Essene way of life. He didn’t assure those who were estranged from society that the religious authorities would leave a light on for them if they would only come back. He went out and met them in the wilderness and delivered to them the good news that God’s salvation was coming out to find them. He told those who were unable to find a welcome in their local synagogues or in the Jerusalem temple that reconciliation and forgiveness were not waiting on them to come back but that the opportunity for turning things around had come all the way out into the wilderness to meet them where they were. And in Jesus Christ that’s where it meets us as well.
Sometimes we just don’t know how to take that first step. Sometimes the wounds of rejection run so deep that we can’t even imagine being welcomed back. In those moments of most profound brokenness, it doesn’t matter how eager people will be to see us if we ever darken the door again. We can’t even get to that threshold because we are convinced that we don’t belong there. But the good news of Jesus Christ is God’s promise that salvation and redemption and forgiveness are not conditional upon us finding our way back. They are brought out and handed to us even when we are stuck in the barren places, cut off from others. The path to reconciliation is one of repentance—of turning around—but John the Baptist helps us hear that the forgiveness we seek isn’t waiting for us when we complete the journey but is offered to us even before we take that first step.
In some ways, of course, this message of unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t intended for those who already come to church on Sunday mornings and already know that they will have a place in one of these pews and already believe that they will be embraced by God at the altar. Most of the people who need to hear the good news of God’s limitless grace and mercy are the ones who aren’t here. They’re the ones who have been pushed away by religious groups and institutions like ours—by the very people who think that leaving a lamp on in the window and waiting for penitent sinners to come back is all we are called to do—those who believe that it’s up to the ones who have gone astray to get their lives back in order before they walk through that door. But that’s not the gospel of grace. It’s just another way of saying, “Saints are welcome, but sinners need not apply.” And that’s not what it means for us to be the body of Christ.
Those of us who have received the good news of unconditional love are called to do more than welcome those who return. We must share that good news with those who doubt that they would ever have a place in a church like this one. We must reach out to them and go to those places—both physical and metaphorical—where broken relationships pile up, where three strikes and you’re out is the rule of life, where hope is hardest to find. Those are wilderness places, where city-folk like you and me are usually scared to go. But they are also the places where, in the tender compassion of our God, a new dawn from on high breaks upon sinners like us.
If you already know in your heart that that dawn is breaking, you must go out and share that good news with those who have given up hope that there could ever be a new day. And, if you are among those who have been led to believe that God’s love and forgiveness will never be real for you until you become a better person and get your spiritual act together, hear this good news today: God has come out to meet you where you are. Even in the wilderness, a voice of hope cries out that God makes the crooked paths and rough places smooth and straight in order that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
1. Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.5.2. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html, accessed 3 December 2021.